The image of the fat cat member of congress is only half true. Some people, such as President Joe Biden when he was a Senator, do in fact live just on their congressional salaries and come in as middle class. Unfortunately, the way the way the Texas legislature is set up, it’s almost impossible to be a public servant alone.
Texas legislatures are among the lowest paid in the nation. They make only $7,200 a year plus a per diem when they are in session. Texas also has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the country, usually only working for about six months every two years no counting special sessions. If someone wanted to serve in the legislature and do no other work, they would be making roughly minimum wage.
“None of the folks who really do the work are ‘part-time’ in practice,” said State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Kyle) on Twitter. “This means our laws are disproportionately made by the independently wealthy.”
This underpayment of public servants explains why a lot of the movers and shakers tend to be very well-off. State Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), for example, is a rising star in the legal world at Gray Reed & McGraw LLP. His estimated net worth is somewhere between $1 and $5 million, so he doesn’t need the pittance of his salary. What does come in handy, though, is Leach’s ability to write legislation that may benefit his firm’s wealthy trucking clients. Earlier this year he launched an attempt to hamstring plaintiffs when it came to suing trucking companies for accidents.
Leach is just one example, and it’s hard to find a net worth average of every Texas legislator, but it doesn’t take much to figure out that most people cannot live on $7,200 a year in order to serve their districts. Increasingly, this means that the state is represented by people of considerably better means than their constituents as they are the only people who can afford to go to Austin.
A report released Monday by New American Leaders showed that this is a nationwide problem. Not only does it put power in the hands of the wealthy, it also makes it more likely that the people able to run are the ones with the most privilege: cis heterosexual white men. Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders, says this is one of the reasons that the halls of power have been slow to diversify.
“State legislators have this enormous power to decide the future of immigrants, BIPOC communities and just constituents at large,” Dagher told The 19th. “But due to low legislative salaries, many people who are most impacted by the policies that legislators make are shut out of positions of power.”
The idea of increasing congressional salaries is almost universally an unpopular one, even though some states such as New Hampshire are literally still paying the same amount as they did in the Nineteenth Century. However, by turning being a representative into a hobby only the well-off can afford rather than a calling anyone can make a living at, the legislator as a haven for the rich become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, state government is like so many other aspects of life: you get what you pay for. Or, in this case, don’t.